Sometimes Dikotter’s research or his extensive reading comes up with a gem. Thus this, by a man tied onto a plank for denunciation: “I lay on the wooden plank looking up. The rain had stopped. Amid the loud shouting, I could hear the river nearby. The clouds had dispersed and the sky was clear blue. I thought ‘People lived harmoniously under the same sky in the same village for many years. Why did they act like this now?’”
Everything deemed relevant to the revolution is described in this book. In a chapter called “The Road to Serfdom”, for instance, Dikotter spells out the mechanics of collectivization. Earlier the campaign against Buddhists, Taoists and Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, is explained, and anti-Muslim sentiment detailed. We learn how books, the theater and cinema were all subject to rigorous censorship, with one publisher’s list being reduced from some 8,000 titles to just over 1,000 between 1950 and 1951, and how formerly eminent essayists, diplomats and liberals were systematically targeted. Little of this is new, but here Dikotter presents the evidence as part of a wide-reaching, very accessible story.
It therefore seems to me that what Frank Dikotter is doing in this trilogy is penning a comprehensive popular history of the revolution in China from its beginnings to what was effectively its close, the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. It’s intended to be a popular work, something that will be read by millions in the English-speaking world just as Jan Morris’s Pax Britannica trilogy was, and still is, read, or the popular histories of A.J.P. Taylor. But this trilogy will be popular in a special sense. It may be highly readable (“enjoyable” is hardly an appropriate word in the circumstances), but all the time you know it’s the product of a major authority on the period. Its generalizations are rooted in knowledge that isn’t necessarily displayed on the page, and its colorful evocations of time and place are based on long hours in the archives. The whole trilogy when it’s completed is thus likely to be, and deserves to be, the book almost everyone will turn to first when seeking an outline of its momentous and ultimately tragic subject.